By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
I borrowed Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing the other day from the library – although I had read many of his rules before, I realized I hadn’t actually read the whole (albeit very short) book. Since we have been doing our first page critiques, I thought it was probably a good time to highlight his rules – many of which we have already discussed in our critiques – and to also fess up to my own shortcomings…
Here are his 10 rules…
1. Never open a book with weather
2. Avoid prologues
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
5. Keep your exclamation points under control
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip
While these are excellent rules, I have to confess to breaking at least half of these in my own work. I have used a prologue and (mea culpa) even the word “suddenly” on the odd occasion.
As a writer of historical fiction I also admit to giving pretty detailed descriptions of places, things and people in order to give the reader insight into the time period. However, the hardest rules for me, are rule number 3 and 4. While I certainly try and avoid overusing adverbs and bizarre speech handles such as “asseverated” I find when I try and limit my dialogue to using only “said”, it becomes stilted and hollow. My solution has been to try and limit my adverb use and to highlight gestures, actions etc. to provide appropriate texture to the scene – but still, I fear my dialogue drafts are way more ‘flowery’ than Elmore would like:) As part of my editing process I am extra vigilant when it comes to this rule, but also equally aware that stripping my work down too much saps it of its color. It’s a balancing act, as with most things in writing.
So what about you? Which of these rules have you broken in your own work?
If you had to write your top ten rules what would be number 1 on your list?